Northern Michigan restaurants enjoy seeing guests return, with caution

Restaurateurs up north wish they had more of a heads up before reopening dining rooms, and share advice for restaurants and patrons downstate

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

In northern Michigan over the weekend, diners enjoyed luxuries we haven't seen downstate in months. 

Patrons made reservations. Guests were greeted and seated by hosts stationed outside or behind Plexiglas. They had their orders taken by masked servers and cocktails shaken by masked bartenders. They enjoyed restaurant-quality meals that they didn't have to cook or clean up themselves.

Doug and Kim Lapp of Mount Pleasant sit outside a restaurant Friday in Traverse City on Friday. The couple drove up for the weekend. "We are so happy to be outside in Traverse City eating great food on a nice summer day," said Kim.

But it wasn't without many precautions and a more than a bit of uneasiness. 

"I think there was a bit of nervousness building up to it. There had been rumors of people flooding from the south," said David Ritchie, vice president of operations for Mission Restaurants, which has breweries and restaurants in Metro Detroit, the Traverse City area and elsewhere. "It was good, we were pleasantly surprised." 

Mission Restaurants North Peak Brewing Company and Blue Tractor Barbeque in Traverse City reopened their dining rooms on Memorial Day. Ritchie said the day went smooth at both spots, and he did not see an "unusual" number of tourists. While they were working with less than half the number of employees than usual for Memorial Day weekend, neither restaurant was overwhelmed because the dining rooms were only open to half the legal capacity. 

"The sales were honestly a little better than I expected," he said. 

On the west arm of the Grand Traverse Bay, the Boathouse Restaurant's phone started "ringing off the hook" on Monday when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that bars and restaurant dining rooms in northern Michigan could reopen on May 22. 

"It made me a little nervous but then things settled down and we were ready to go on Friday," said Boathouse owner Doug Kosch, who has more than 20 years experience in the industry. Had the Boathouse not been doing carryout business throughout the stay-at-home order, he doesn't think Friday would have been enough time to reopen. 

"I wouldn't have had, kind of, the infrastructure ... some menu items, the food, people scheduled, things like that," he said. "That was paramount to being able to open the dining room itself. That was the first obstacle. And then it was making sure the staff was comfortable with it."

Operating with about half the staff as usual and only about 40% of the dining area, Kosch took extra precautions, like requiring reservations for the dining rooms (some walk-in guests could sit on the outdoor deck), putting the host stand outside beyond the front doors, not allowing bar seating and offering masks for customers who showed up without them. 

"I didn't try to make up 10 weeks of being closed in three days," he said. "I just took it really easy, operated at less than 50%. My staff was nervous, so there was a lot of working with them and making sure I had procedures in place so they felt safe."

North Peak in Traverse City puts a clear plastic shield at the host stand.

While he said there were no issues and the customers were "awesome" and "courteous," Kosch still wishes he had more time to transition to the opening dining room. 

"I little more time would have been good. I know Gov. Whitmer announced Monday that we could open Friday, but a little more time would have been great," he said. "I think that downstate they'll be probably afforded that opportunity or have a little more time."

Ritchie says he and his employees at Mission Restaurant Group have been preparing for changing operating procedures since the pandemic started. While the dining rooms at their Detroit-area restaurants — including Jolly Pumpkin in Midtown Detroit and Royal Oak — are closed, they've been making updates like putting Plexiglas where guests may interact with employees, and adding touch-less features to the restrooms. 

The Jolly Pumpkin in Traverse City is reopening Wednesday. Ritchie said they needed more time to prepare because they hadn't been doing carryout business, and less staff than expected returned to work. 

"You have to take this one step at a time," he said, adding that they have a "symptom tracker" for employees. A series of questions are asked about an employee's health before they come to work and their temperature is taken. "We’re doing everything we can, plus wearing masks and gloves."

Besides guest and staff safety, which has always been a priority, Ritchie says at the end of the day running a restaurant is also about hospitality, even through a mask. 

"We’re reminding each other that you can’t see a smile through a mask, you have to smile with your eyes and use a tone of voice and it’s all about creating that welcoming atmosphere," he said. "We’ve found that most guests that came through the door on opening day, and even through carryout and delivery, they’re mostly interested in getting a little bit of their life back and helping local business." 

Workers in Michigan's hospitality industry who who have faced financial hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic will again have the opportunity to apply for a one-time assistance payment of up to $500 beginning this week.

As for advice for guests stepping back into the post-lockdown world of dining, Ritchie stresses "patience." 

"A mask is not a pleasant thing to wear for an eight-hour shift in a hot kitchen or in a dining room ... so one thing I wish guest would know is that it’s hard on us, too, and we’re trying," he said. "If we kind of work together we can have a positive business experience and they can have a positive dining experience and hopefully we can continue and open up more than 50% soon."

Further north in Gwinn, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, Up North Lodge general manager Jesie Melchiori has the same advice.

A mainstay of the area for more than 30 years, the destination bar and restaurant welcomed customers back starting at 12:01 a.m. Friday. The party continued throughout the holiday weekend with ribs, a fish fry, loaded Bloody Marys and even some live music on an outdoor stage, which she cautiously waited for Sunday to implement. 

While Melchiori calls the Up North Lodge a "destination" restaurant and a spot for visiting tourists and locals alike, she estimates that 90% of the visitors the past few days have been from the area. 

“Just be patient. It’s a new normal for everybody," she said. "The customers were thankful that we were here and thankful for all the steps that we had gone through. Overall, I was ecstatic on how the whole weekend went.” 

Melchiori said she took the advice supplied to her by the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association and the Michigan Liquor Control Commission regarding new safety protocols. 

The Up North Lodge in Gwinn, Michigan has outdoor dining areas and a small stage for live music.

"They've done all the hard work, it's all there," she said, adding that restaurants starting to reopen shouldn't try to "reinvent the wheel." To assure her customers, before opening Melchiori posted a video to social media walking through the restaurant and explaining all the new protocols and measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to protect guests and staff.

"People want to get out of their houses, they want to come visit," she said. "Just do it safe, just do it smart." 

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Twitter: @melodybaetens